Controversial Cuban connection
Rep. Charles Rangel, a frequent critic of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, met with Fidel Castro on a trip to the island in 2002, but only acknowledged that the Cuban government picked up part of the tab when a watchdog group began making recent inquiries.
The New York Democrat changed his travel disclosure form for the April 2002 trip and reimbursed the Cuban government and a New York grocery store owner $1,922 for his son's expenses after the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan group that focuses on open records, raised questions about the trip. House ethics rules permit private sponsors of lawmakers' trips to cover the cost of the member of Congress and one relative -- in Rangel's case, his wife Alma, who also went on the trip.
The government watchdog group, which released an extensive review of congressional travel, noted that congressional travel disclosure forms "are supposed to make the sponsor and purpose of privately funded trips transparent to the public.
But according to the group, Rangel initially listed a group that was conducting a bird study in Cuba at the time, the Minneapolis-based Sian Ka'an Conservation Foundation, as the sponsor of the trip. On an amended form -- filed in April -- Rangel added the Cuban government and grocery owner John Catsimatidis as sponsors.
Rangel's chief of staff, George Dalley, told the center that Rangel and his staff did not know the Cuban government had paid for part of the trip until they were contacted by the group.
According to the center, the group attended talks about bird conservation, dined at the U.S. Special Interests Section (the American diplomatic mission in Cuba) and met with Castro. The center noted that Catsimatidis was interested in traveling to Havana "to familiarize himself with preparations for the consecration of a Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Old Havana.